In one of her earliest comic strips, Alison Bechdel (“Fun Home”) portrayed a female film fan who had a hard time finding a Hollywood movie that would live up to her guidelines: “I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements. One, it has to have at least two women in it, who, Two, talk to each other about, Three, something besides a man. … Last movie I was able to see was “Alien”; the two women in it talk to each other about the monster.”
In the two ensuing decades since Bechdel wrote this comic, the terrain for women’s stories in mainstream cinema hasn’t gotten much better, which makes “The Life Before Her Eyes” all the more frustrating. Uma Thurman, Evan Rachel Wood and Eva Amurri give fascinating performances as multifaceted women, but the movie yanks the rug out from under all three in its quest for a Shyamalan-esque shocking twist ending.
Diana (Wood) and Maureen (Amurri) are high-school seniors and best friends, even though the two couldn’t be more different; Maureen comes from a fairly strict religious background while Diana is a walking id, hungry for sex, drugs and any other experiences life has to offer. Their interplay is fascinating and heartfelt. It comes to a head when the two are involved in a Columbine-style shooting when one of their classmates comes to school with an automatic weapon and slaughters students and teachers alike.
Thurman plays Diana as an adult, and the movie bounces between the feral, rule-breaking teenager and the vulnerable woman she becomes. The violent incident from her youth makes Diana perhaps overcompensate in looking out for her own young daughter, in whom we see hints of the young Diana’s rebelliousness.
All of this is fascinating, and the actresses — under the direction of Vadim Perelman (“House of Sand and Fog”) — create compelling portraits of these three-dimensional, flawed, funny women. Diana counts as one of Thurman’s richer roles, and she makes every moment count.
Additional kudos are due her for allowing the camera to catch the lines around her eyes. This is an actress who’s not afraid to leave her instrument — and her beauty — surgically unenhanced. Wood and Amurri are both riveting, giving us young characters who don’t feel like the hackneyed creations of unimaginative screenwriters.
The men in the film are almost entirely negligible, but that’s a Hollywood formula that goes way back. When you’ve got Joan Crawford playing Mildred Pierce, you put her opposite Zachary Scott, not Clark Gable. Similarly, Thurman gets to play off the aggressively bland Brett Cullen who, as an actor, makes a very fine J. Crew model.
But just when you think you’re getting an interesting movie about women and their travails and triumphs, the whiffs of a Shocking! Twist! Ending! begin to appear. And once that happens, all of the film’s qualities and successes are left on the cinema floor like so many unpopped popcorn kernels. “The Life Before Her Eyes” feels like a rare opportunity squandered, but at least its trio of leading ladies gets a few shining moments before they’re kneecapped by the script.